Adis Vila first laid eyes on America as an 8-year-old, after fleeing Cuba with her mother in 1962. The two landed in the arms of the Catholic Church in Miami and moved into a garage with a concrete floor.
Vila brought all she had: three changes of clothes and two pairs of shoes.
Twenty years later, Vila was working at the White House.
Today, she's the Air Force Academy's first full-time diversity officer, entering an atmosphere that could be more sensitive to women and minorities, according to the 2009-10 cadet climate survey.
Besides looking for ways to improve that environment, Vila will try to shape the Cadet Wing into a reflection of society. About six weeks after starting her $165,000-a-year job, her public introduction took place last Friday in a conference room filled with blue uniforms and the AFA Board of Visitors, a 15-member panel of political appointees that meets quarterly and reports to Congress on the academy's morale, discipline, curriculum and other matters.
Standing only 5-foot-4 and lacking military rank or political title, Vila nevertheless put her audience on notice that "inclusiveness is really all of our jobs." That includes Congress, she said, whose members nominate students to the academy, as well as professors who instruct cadets on academics and staff members who select contractors. Diversity doesn't just include gender and race, but geographic origin and socioeconomic status.
As AFA Supt. Lt. Gen. Michael Gould said, "This cuts across all mission elements."
There's not much Adis Vila hasn't achieved, judging from her 10-page résumé. She's an international lawyer, has an MBA from the University of Chicago and has studied at Harvard. As one of Ronald Reagan's White House fellows, she was charged with building coalitions among interest groups. She's been a lecturer, professor, federal bureaucrat, consultant and businesswoman. She's traveled the world and speaks four languages.
That kaleidoscope of experience arms her with knowledge to effect change at the roots, she says. "I have learned a lot about how one manages people, processes, budgets, and how one gets the best out of people."
She believes her upbringing also helps.
Vila's life began amid the Cuban Revolution, in which Castro's 26th of July Movement overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1959. Her father supported Castro but soon saw things weren't turning out as promised, so he sent his only child and his wife to Miami and joined them in 1966. The couple divorced soon after.
Vila walked to public schools, where she perfected her once-rudimentary English skills. Her mom, uneducated with no work experience, rode buses to and from two factory jobs. Vila credits her teachers and neighborhood with helping raise her.
"I benefited greatly from the opportunities this country has offered me," she says. "At a personal level, it has been my desire to give back and help others. I'm experienced enough to bring valuable skills, and old enough and wise enough and humble enough to know it will take the whole village."
That's why she'll reach out to the community here and beyond for a hand. The academy will contribute regularly to the Diversity Journal, with a national circulation of about a million. She'll encourage the AFA band to explore other cultures through music performed and commissioned. And Vila also will help the academy identify and contract with more women- and minority-owned businesses; look for her speaking to the Colorado Springs Women's Chamber of Commerce and other local groups.
Her work within the Academy will include assessing staff and faculty. Though the institution ranks high for accessibility to professors, Vila asks, "How does the faculty represent the world in which we are going to live? Are they all coming from Purdue? From the Academy? Do we have a good match for those with foreign experience, multicultural experience? Many [cadets] will be exercising leadership in foreign countries. How can we use extracurricular activities to reflect globalization? These are the kinds of questions we will be building on."
Wing to shrink
But Vila's primary focus will be increasing diversity in the Cadet Wing. And that will be made more difficult by the planned reduction Oct. 1, 2012 from 4,500 cadets to 4,000.
While the Academy had been admitting more than 1,300 per year, the Class of 2015 (arriving next summer) will be cut to 1,120, and the Class of 2016 to 1,050. Thereafter, the academy will admit 1,165 cadets per class, which, with normal attrition, will meet downsizing requirements.
"No doubt it will have an impact," Vila says. "It causes us not only to be smarter on who we recruit, but smarter in how we retain."
She'll look at how and where recruitment is done, and helping students, earlier — perhaps as soon as in ninth and 10th grades — to better prepare for the Academy's focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She'll also work with the Falcon Foundation and Association of Graduates on ensuring Colorado Springs provides enough sponsor families that mirror cadet diversity.
"These are small steps," Vila says, "but hopefully the combination of these will help us retain the cadets we do recruit."
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